IBM, Stanford craft next-generation chips

IBM and Stanford University have announced a new research group dedicated to the emerging science of spintronics, with the goal of creating prototype CPUs that complete computations through magnetism instead of today's electrical charge.

"We're trying to do something that could be as significant as the launch of the transistor 50 years ago," says Robert Morris, vice president of IBM's personal systems and storage. He directs the Almaden Research Center here, where Big Blue and Stanford luminaries announced the new joint development effort.

The IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center (SpinApps) could be key to future advancements in processor technology, according to Stuart Parkin, an IBM Fellow and manager of the Magnetoelectronics group at the center.

Processor manufacturers have traditionally increased CPU performance by shrinking a chip's circuitry so it can run faster, he notes. This method has dramatically increased computing power over the past few decades, but the process is hitting physical limitations. Specifically: The necessary electrical charge causes those faster chips to get too hot to handle. Processor giant Intel has noted the growing problem of heat in recent years, too.

Parkin and his associates hope spintronics will help create ever-more-powerful processors, so manufacturing roadblocks won't slow the pace of technological evolution.

Line Up the Electrons

Today's processors use an electrical charge to create on and off states. A processor based on the principles of spintronics could control the spin (or magnetic orientation) of electrons and create two possible states: up or down. The result: atomic-size structures that offer enormous computational capabilities while generating very little heat.

Parkin estimates that current processor manufacturing technologies could yield five to ten more years of performance improvements. However, that's not much time to develop a new way to build CPUs.

"It takes a long time to go from theory to product," Parkin says.

In fact, that's about how long it has taken another spintronics-based technology to go from idea to product, he adds. Magnetic random access memory (MRAM) has been in the works for more than nine years. Several companies are now readying products that use the technology, and could ship them as early as next year.

Cheap, high performance, and nonvolatile, MRAM represents a dramatic improvement over today's two most common memory standards: dynamic RAM (DRAM) and static RAM (SRAM, or flash memory), Parkin says. He likens today's DRAM to a leaky bucket that must be constantly refreshed to maintain its contents. Meanwhile, SRAM doesn't leak, but it must be a much larger bucket. MRAM is like a small bucket that doesn't need constant refilling. IBM and Infineon Technologies announced in 2000 plans to co-develop MRAM products.

Spintronics on the Net

While CPUs and MRAM are still on the drawing board, IBM has already introduced its first spintronics-based product. In fact, it appeared back in 1997 as the first hard drive to use the giant magneto-resistive (GMR) head. The GMR technology brought about a 40-fold increase in data density over the past seven years, and helped fuel the massive growth in hard drive capacities, according to IBM representatives.

By enabling manufacturers to create large, cost-effective hard drives, spintronics technology has helped the Internet expand, Parkin notes. With lots of cheap storage available, the Web has had more room to grow.

In fact, IBM's contributions to areal density have may have led to the company's retreat from the hard drive business, he jokes.

"By 2005 we'll be able to store all of the data in existence on just the hard drives shipped in that year. Maybe that's why we sold the disk drive business," Parkin says. IBM sold its hard drive division to Hitachi in 2002.

Regardless of the eventual business ramifications, Parkin and his team--comprising more than 25 research specialists including Stanford professors, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and IBM employees--clearly have lofty goals for this emerging technology.

In his closing comments at the announcement, IBM's Morris outlined the technology's potential to impact everything from computational computing to storage. He noted, in what could turn out to be an understatement, "we may be on the verge of something extremely important."

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Tom Mainelli

PC World
Show Comments


James Cook University - Master of Data Science Online Course

Learn more >




Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?